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Colin Reaney's installation , Seeing and Being Shown: A Still Life with Apples, was a private narrative and a public lesson. It appeared to be a symbolic scene; or perhaps a backdrop, similar to a vanitas painting that has just been left by some participant; or the laying out of a banquet several hours before it is to be served.
Near the entry to a small room of this grand Victorian house was a single word, written on the floor: "there ". Above the fireplace hung a white blank canvas with another single small work: "this". Scattered apples and stacked blank canvases adorned a long table, draped in white damask.
The moral lesson here was somewhat less clear than one would expect to find in its seventeenth century Dutch counterpart, but the sense of the 'staged' was the same. One could not be sure whose absence was felt, or for whom the dinner was laid. There were no chairs, no glasses, none of the small individual cues the viewer uses to read a time and place. The stacked canvases gave a sense of anticipated production while the white wooden apples implied a falseness and folly. At eye height around the room were six small arched mirrors, angled to break up the space and to position the viewer variously. They were head size, like a hand mirror, yet their Palladian shape· referred to a grander scale. Overall, the sense was one of waiting, of suspension, of a meaning lost or a lesson misunderstood.
There were, however, subtle clues, though these were slow to 'appear'. Embroidered on the largest tablecloth , white on white, were the names Magritte and Duchamp. On a smaller tablecloth placed on top of that, the name Kosuth was written. As one moved around the room, past a black and white checked floor that surrounded the table, one could see the following algebraic equation of its titles:1 Duchamp X = X; Magritte X"* X; Kosuth X = X+X.
What appeared as enigmatic was actually quite didactic, and it seemed that Reaney was working it out in front of us. A bottle rack as a bottle rack; this is not a pipe, but the image of a pipe; a chair, the photographic image of that chair, and the dictionary definition of a chair. 'X', in this context, does not represent any number, but rather any image, any idea: a pipe, a chair, or a bottlerack. Superficially Reaney's work read as an homage, a laying of a groundwork for practice. However, once the algebraic code was worked out, one could see that he played an open-handed game, something close to a riddle . The "X" could be replaced by many things; what continues to be important is the formula.
There was a decorative beauty to this work in its appearance of production, of staging, of the familiarity in seeing a table in such a building, once a mansion and a boarding house. But it was the kind of familiarity one has with the teacher that sits cross-legged on the desk and insists on being called by first name. You are still aware that your position is one for which you will be accountable later. The atmosphere is congenial ('seeing'), but you know you are being taught ('being shown'). The lesson is on, though any prior knowledge you bring to class will be acknowledged and built upon.
Reaney, however, does not quiz his audience any more or less than he navigates his own position. The work, though slick, is not smug. The question of how this work can operate in the wake of contemporary history, is a question that it asks of its own process.
1. This equation is drawn from George Alexander, "Slipzones: Text and Art", Art & Text, No. 26, p. 44